The 2012 U.S. Election

The Cycle of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow


I Voted Sticker from US Election 2012

A monk told Joshu: “I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me.”

Joshu asked: “Have you eaten your rice porridge?”

The monk replied: “I have eaten.”

Joshu said: “Then you had better wash your bowl.”

At that moment the monk was enlightened.

~ Zen Koan 7 in The Gateless Gate, by Ekai (Mumon)


I expect most democracies go through the same election cycle we do. On Election Day morning, we have a stunning silence. Political advertising shuts off. News media suddenly don’t know what to say except how the traffic is. It is as if royalty, in the form of the U.S. electorate, is approaching the dais to deliver its edict.

The night of the election we receive the vote tallies, frantically delivered via television and Internet, always with a touch of uncertainty and a lot of braggadocio from people who “knew it all along.” (Some really should know better than to claim that, in this age of archived and bookmarked articles available to everyone. Others do hit the nail on the head, by skill or by accident, and can be allowed their bragging rights.) Late at night – assuming we’re fortunate, as we were this time – we have a winner, and a loser.

The next day, all the media – social, mainstream, and lunatic fringe – indulge in dissection of what the loser did wrong. (Well, the lunatic fringe usually haul out evil conspiracies that undermined their God-given rights, etc., etc.) By the end of the day, the winner begins to earn a jaundiced gaze and warnings of the mess he or (someday) she has just been landed with. And sneakily, other stories, such as the West Nile virus outbreak, begin to claim headlines.

And the day after, we finally get fully back to work, rather expecting that sports on the weekend will wipe these days from everyone’s consciousness.

My experience of this 2012 U.S. election came close to the feeling I have when the snow starts falling in earnest, and I know that the city will shut down and there’s not a thing any business client or repair-rabid neighbor or petulant friend can do about it. I admit, I treasure such moments. Amid all our belief in what we can do, they remind us of how select that range of things is.

No longer was I being yelled at, argued with, entreated, or guessed about – or tempted to do the same. It was my moment to do what I had decided, then to sit back and see whether my choice accorded with that of the majority of my fellow voters. And honestly … I had no idea.

The Presbyterian church in my neighborhood has served as my polling place for at least a decade. The workers know my father from times he guest-preached there in the 1970s-1990s, and they know me from my presence on some of those occasions and as a regular voter. Going to the polls there is like a semi-annual quick visit with friends. They greet me, we chat about Dad (he was with me this time), I sign the register and ask how turnout has been. Then I vote.

No one talks politics. No one mentions words like “duty,” “responsibility,” “right,” “obligation.” It’s a remarkably Zen episode in my life as an American citizen. You go in, greet, vote, say farewell.

Eat your rice porridge. Wash the bowl.

From there I went to work. My client asked me, “Did you vote?” and we showed each other our stickers. It was finished. Though this client and I had no difference of political opinion, the point remained: we had spoken. Now it was for others to speak. And so we talked a little about the turnout, which was good in Philadelphia.

We also commented on how friendly people were being to one another. She noted that people said hello and goodbye to the bus driver, which they usually neglect to do. This Election Day did feel special. Many Philadelphians answered the call to vote. The Obama campaign especially worked hard here to assure people could get to the polls.

Among my local and national friends, several posted photos of their stickers on Facebook (as did I) and wanted to discuss their experiences voting. Few wanted to discuss politics. I find this to be a positive thing. We have trouble talking with each other about political issues, true; but it doesn’t mean we’re wholly disengaged from our government.

Maybe it’s like our move away from reality television. It takes time to push the snarky voices to the margins.

I felt we all were undergoing a great sense of relief and completion. The actual presidential campaign went on nearly two years – utterly ridiculous, in my opinion. Fighting for the rights of citizens to vote, amid all sorts of attempts to restrict those rights, went on nearly as long. Political diatribes – well, those have gone on from about 10 months into the president’s first term. The past six months have been a relentless barrage of polls, phone calls, emails, donation solicitations, media analysis, and unsolicited opinion.

Finally, we, the people, could do something that mattered – for, as one meme over the past month pointed out, no one has managed to sway someone’s political opinion on Facebook. But at last we could vote, and thereby speak in a way that counted.

I told my client I wasn’t sure if I would watch the returns. I’ve always admired Harry Truman, who went to bed on election night and woke to find the Chicago Tribune declaring his opponent the winner, even as Truman won by 2 million votes. I like those kind of outcomes, where the fortune-tellers get it wrong. (Hence my dislike of marketing algorithms and my staunch defense of the secret ballot.)

As it happened, I snoozed through the first three hours of returns and awoke just before Ohio was being called. Not bad timing, really.

I like to be around for the speeches, even if my candidate loses. How people act in victory, defeat, and uncertainty tells me more about them than the self-promoting blather of the campaign. (This sealed my dislike of George W. Bush: in the waiting period of recounts, he was so surly and begrudging of the process that I knew we were likely to have a spoiled brat in high office. Did he think he was the only one being made to wait?) Mitt Romney spoke better, I thought, than he had all through the campaign – gracious and genuinely concerned in defeat. Barack Obama also delivered a good speech – thankful, equally gracious, lacking in bombast, earnest about the future.

Today, the media discussed what Romney did wrong and what Obama did right (and as the day closes, what Obama is “up against” – as if he might have been oblivious the past four years). I agree with some assessments, but I wonder what purpose left-leaning analysis of a right-wing candidate’s “mistakes” serves, as what it tends to conclude is “If your candidate were a Democrat, he’d have done better.”

Um … yes. But most Republicans do not want to be Democrats. And, as they are, vice versa.

I do think that turning women’s bodies into an area for phony science, interpretations of God’s will, and dogmatic imposition of religio-social mores hurt the Republicans, as the approach goes not only against biology and the diverse lifestyles of the female half of the electorate but against the purpose of the Constitution in protecting the right of everyone to worship – or not – as the individual believes. The results of Senate races in Missouri and Indiana, especially, bear out my theory that flying in the face of fact and the basis of government is not a winning strategy.

I think those elements in the party who harp on the virtues of “the Red states” and indoctrinate themselves at the altars of their media ideologues while positing UN takeovers of the nation and condemning the Democrats’ supposed “communistic” tendencies help Republicans appear irrelevant and a laughing-stock. (I haven’t seen such a bizarrely paranoid and authoritarian approach to politics since the movies Farewell My Concubine, To Live, and other 1990s depictions of life under Chairman Mao.)

I think isolationism from their fellow Americans among certain whites weakens only their own participatory potential, just as national isolationism on the global stage is an impossibility for a nation that wants to grow.

And I think an overdeveloped awe toward and accommodation of the wealthy weakens nations, fosters division, and nurtures an unhealthily simplistic expectation that “life is going to reward me if only I follow their rules.” (As John Steinbeck once said, America is full of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”)

But my thinking doesn’t change what quite a few Republicans believe and want to see in the United States.

Tomorrow, much of this analysis will die down, and the nation will return to its work and home life. Government will face the task of resolving the looming “fiscal cliff.” Governors will continue to assist populations damaged by recent storms. Some will continue to argue about what the other side believes (or is) and whether we can come together as a nation. I applaud the latter goal, though I think less talk about how important it is and more simple getting to know one another as people would be useful.

But when it comes to reacting to the outcome, as my father said, “We have one of these things every four years. It shouldn’t surprise anyone. There are winners and losers.”

Today I saw an article on “How to Cope If Your Candidate Loses.” And really, that is too much – from the probable Democrat who wrote it, and for the potential Republican who thinks he or she needs it.

Eat your rice porridge. Clean the bowl. Get back to the present.

There’s much to appreciate here.